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  • Writer's picturePage Brooks

The Mosaic: A White Pastor’s Role in a Multi-Cultural World

What is my role as a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, male pastor in a world that increasingly values multi-culturalism and various ethnicities? God taught me that answer through my multi-racial family.

Our Story

From the beginning of our marriage, my wife and I wanted to adopt. At the time we did not know that we were not able to have our own children. For us, adopting was always a first option, along with having our own children. Little did we know that in the journey from infertility to adoption that God would change our marriage, our ministry, and our worldview.

In 2006, my wife and I had the opportunity to adopt a little boy in our church. That particular adoption opportunity never materialized. However, we decided we would place our names in for another adoption. During the application process, we were asked preferences: sex, race, age, medical background, etc. We were very open to whichever child God wanted to give us; one question, however, stumped us: What race did we want our child to be? Again, we did not really care, but we also knew the challenges of multi-racial adoption. Believing that we should not have a preference and allow God to give us whichever child, we marked no preference for race. Within a few weeks, our first adopted child was in our home. Her name was Karis, and she was half African-American and half Hispanic.

We would later adopter two more wonderful children, both African-America: Alethia and Josiah. From our adoptions, God radically changed our lives, ministries, and our pursuit of Jesus. I am glad to say that our families came around rather quickly, despite some initial hesitation, to our multi-racial adoptions. What changed radically was our ministry.

Growing Up in the Still-Segregated South

One concern for our multi-racial adoption stemmed from our background. I was born in Montgomery, Alabama and raised in Selma, Alabama. My wife is from South Central Georgia. We grew up where racial division was simply part of the culture. It was embedded in the institutions in which were grew as children. Our families were by no means overt racists. But we were brought up to believe that blacks and whites simply did not socialize together. Neither did black and whites worship together. That was just the way it was.

We also had ministry issues to consider. I had a PhD from a well-known Southern Baptist seminary. The expectation from my home church and family was that I would earn the terminal degree and go off to pastor First Baptist Church of such and such town. The further expectation was that when the next larger church opportunity came, I would then place my name in for consideration. Because I had a PhD, I would give me a leg up on the other candidates. I had a family member that said to me, “Page, if you adopt a black child, you will never be hired by a First Baptist Church!” Those were the expectations. That was just the way it was.

Growing up, the racial separation that I saw troubled me. In Selma, the whites would always remember the Civil War era “Battle of Selma.” The blacks would also remember the March to Montgomery re-enactment. I remember asking my family why we never went to the March re-enactment. The answer was simple: whites went to the battle re-enactment and blacks went to the march re-enactment. Those were the expectations. That was just the way it was.

Changing Our Worldview

By adopting multi-racial children, we realized we would limit ourselves to certain churches that would accept our new family. At the same time, my wife and I agreed that if those churches did not want to accept our family, then those were the type of churches in which we probably did not want to serve. Through our adoptions, God opened our eyes to see the divisions that exist in our churches because of race and ethnicity. As we started down the journey of a multiracial ministry in church planting, God opened our eyes to see that racial reconciliation really is at the heart of the Gospel. Being reconciled with our brothers and sisters in Christ across racial lines impacts our pursuit of Christ and our testimony to the world.

We began to see how ethnic and racial division was a problem from the very beginning of the church. I can point to many stories from the book of Acts, for example, that show the division. The appointment of deacons in Acts 6 was because of ethnic disharmony, as the Greek widows were not being served. We see in Acts 10, more than ten years after Pentecost, that even the Apostle Peter had to receive a vision in order to get him to cross ethnic lines to preach the Gospel. I believe that one of the major themes of book of Luke-Acts is about overcoming human-created barriers of ethnicity and race for the Gospel. Even one of the apostles did not realize the barriers of ethnic division for the Gospel!

In addition, we often look at the book of Romans as Paul merely explaining salvation. But, when Paul mentions the Gospel being for the Jews (in fulfillment of God’s promises) as well as being for the Gentiles, he is referencing a racial and ethnic boundary that must be crossed. Regretfully, the Jews erected the racial and ethnic boundary in their history. Paul spends the entire book explaining how salvation works AND how believers must overcome human-created boundaries to share the Gospel.

United We Do Not Stand

Regretfully the church in America has been guilty of the same type of divisions being created. Though the founding documents of our country reference all humans being created equal and having certain inalienable rights, we know that this did not reference the slave population. The church, for the most part, had racial divisions as well. For example, often times whites were seated in the main floor section of the church while Blacks were seated in a balcony section. The African Methodist Episcopal Church (and before that the Free African Society) is one example of denominations that were started just after the founding of the country because Blacks were not allowed to have equal access to worship.

During the early years of the new country, churches should have been at the forefront of combating slavery, yet they remained apathetic. I understand it is easy for us to anachronistically look back and impose a standard of judgment. However, I believe the same apathy has been passed down through the American institutional church to our churches today. Our society has become so accustomed to having separate worship gatherings that we think nothing of going to racially divided churches on Sunday morning. Growing up in Selma, I remember asking why whites and blacks worshipped in different places. Again, the answer was, “Because that’s just the way it is.” This is why Martin Luther King, Jr. stated that Sunday mornings was one of the most segregated times in America.

Our family really was not aware of these segregated foundations of our country until we started growing our multi-racial family. Yes, we had a general awareness of the history of our segregated nation from high school and college history, but we did not realize the depths of that history until we started our multi-racial church. Because of our family, and because of what we were learning of the racial past of our country, we felt led by the Lord to start a multi-racial church in the heart of New Orleans.

We had been part of churches before as a pastor and church planter. We were always bothered by the fact that whites and blacks worshipped in different places, and of course this feeling of angst grew as we continued adopting our children. For example, one church to which we belonged would buy presents for needy families in the area. Those needy families just happen to be primarily black. We would bring the families to the church, shower them with gifts, take pictures, and then we would never see them again. It bothered us because we felt like we were not building true relationships with them. We genuinely wanted to worship with those different than us. This was just one issue…there was also the damage we were doing by giving gifts away. We should have been empowering the families and seeking true relationships with them, not just bringing them to our church and taking pictures.

Family and Church Awakenings

I have to admit it has not been easy having a multi-racial family. We often get stares from people who are trying to understand our family. It seems as though when people see my wife or I alone with one of the children, they naturally assume we married an African-American spouse, which explains why we have mixed children.

My wife has especially received stares whenever she is alone with one of our children. She feels as though people often look at her with some disdain, assuming she sleeps around and therefore has African-American children. On two occasions, African-American ladies have engaged her in conversation at the grocery store and asked if she was babysitting. One lady even asked her, “How much did they pay you to take these kids?” My wife proudly said, “No one paid us! We love them and took them into our home!”

From some of these experiences, we desired to raise our children in a church where various races would come together to worship and be on mission. In 2011, we started Mosaic Church in Mid-City New Orleans. Mid-City is one of the most racially and socio-economically diverse areas in the city. We felt it was one of the best places to start a racially and socio-economically diverse church and it was an area that desperately needed church plants.

Being a white pastor, I knew that I needed a core group team that was racially diverse. The Lord sent to us and African-American worship leader, an African-American assistant pastor, and another white pastor. A few months later we were able to hire a Hispanic pastor as well.

Challenges in the Church

Just like we had challenges as a multi-racial family, we also had challenges in a multi-racial church. Let me state up front that though the vision of our church is to be a diverse church, our ultimate vision is to overcome the barriers that keep us from diversity so that we can make disciples of all people. We are not diverse just to be politically correct; rather, we see racial and socio-economic divisions between people as barriers to the spread of the Gospel. We desire to be a church that wants to overcome those barriers to make Jesus-followers.

In our church we purposefully have hired a diverse staff. There is power in the picture of when, during a church service, I as a white pastor I sit down and receive the teaching of my brother African-American pastor from the Word. Or when I as the white pastor allow our Hispanic pastor to lead in the Lord’s Supper, there is a powerful word picture happening as we share pastoral authority in preparing the Table for our church. During one Lord’s Supper, we had our African-America pastor, Hispanic pastor, and myself all officiating together. It was quite a wonderful picture as we prepared the Table and then invited our brothers and sisters in Christ, from various ethnicities, to join us.

Being a diverse church has brought its own challenges. We have simple ones and deeper one. Simple challenges include such issues as cultural perceptions of time. I come from a white, middle class family and a military background. When I ask someone to be at a meeting at a certain time, I actually mean for everyone to be there 10 minutes prior to the start time so we can start at the exact time I stated. Our current worship leader is from Zimbabwe where the start time is a little more communal…when everyone shows up, that is when the meeting starts! Our African-American pastor is from New Orleans where a given start time means you have at least half an hour to arrive AFTER the start time. Some of our greatest (but simple) struggles have been simply getting everyone to arrive at a similar time to start a meeting!

The other challenges I label as “deeper.” One reason I call them “deeper” is because such challenges are very multi-faceted in a diverse church. Allow me to give an example. Our African-American pastor, Lance, was deeply disturbed by the Zimmerman acquittal a few years ago. Lance just happened to be preaching around that time and shared his heart about how painful it was to see the news. Regardless of the details of who was right or wrong, as a church we needed to give him the space to lament, and we needed to learn to lament with him.

Our church has had to learn to allow the narrative from the diverse populations in our church to inform and change our entire church family. I believe this is another unique application of Galatian 6:2 in a diverse church setting. When Paul states that we need to bear each other’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. I think his command, in a multi-racial setting, means that we must go deeper with one another and understand the deep racial pains that many of our brothers and sisters in Christ. It means that we need to sometimes slow down and be extra patient with one another, be good listeners, and help bear the burdens of others.

A White Pastor in a Multi-racial World

I feel my role, as a white pastor in a multi-cultural world, is to speak up so that people who come from my background realize the racism and injustice that still exists in our world. As a pastor, my role is to be prophetic to speak against such injustices and challenge God’s people to change the world around them.

More specifically, I want to help reverse the systemic racism that has been built up over the centuries of our country. My favorite illustration to share concerning systematic racism concerns my daughter. I picked her up from school one day in Uptown New Orleans. On the way home, we passed two schools, one on the left and one on the right. The one of the right was an all black school, the one on the left was an all white school. My oldest daughter (when she was 7 years old), being ever perceptive, asked me, "Daddy, why are all the students over there with light skin and all the students over there with brown skin?" And so began a long and continuing conversation that my daughter and I have had concerning racism.

Though it was too long of a story to explain to my daughter at the time, the segregation in the schools that my daughter noticed was not because of recent segregation. Rather it was from many different factors coming together to create a perfect storm of systemic racism that has kept students apart. It stems from schools in New Orleans being segregated even after four decades of desegregation. It stems from middle to upper class families, primarily white, being able to afford private education. It stems from various neighborhoods in New Orleans receiving more outside funding than other neighborhoods. It stems from families passing on dysfunction to the next generation due to lack of resources, and even lack of personal responsibility.

All of these factors create systems into which the next generation is born. We live in systems of racism that, just like a fish in water, we are not aware of it. The systems are complicated in that various factors flow together to create a racism that continues in various forms and in various communities. As a middle class, white, male pastor, I feel called to do what I can to help reverse some of the systemic racism that continues in our country.

One of the ways I felt I could help reverse some of the systemic racism was by leading our church to start a non-profit community development ministry. Just a few months after we started the church, we started the community development ministry. We offer relational connections to families through various ministries, such as a job-training program for felons, a free summer kids camps, and community-need based seminars.

As a church, my role as a white, middle class pastor is to be an equipper. Paul teaches that pastors are to be equippers of the saints to empower them for the work and service. I believe this takes on a unique meaning in a diverse ministry environment. It means that as white, middle class pastor, I need to give opportunity to those around me who might not otherwise have such an opportunity. Such a mentality really is one of the centerpieces of discipleship. The more we give away the ministry and empower others, the more they can grow in their faith and exercise their gifts. In our church family, we try to identity young, indigenous leaders from our community that come from underrepresented ethnicities so that may have opportunities that may normally be offered to middle and upper class individuals or churches.

The Challenge for the Church in Discipleship and Empowerment

I believe that race and ethnicity must come to the forefront of our discussion concerning church and discipleship in America. We must first start by correcting the wrongs of our nation and American churches in the past and work for changing our systems and institutions that continue to propagate racism. Its funny…Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is that His church would be one. The American church really has messed up one of the most passionate prayers of Jesus. Our testimony as a church depends on us getting the issue of unity correct.

Why should I work for to help undo the wrongs of the past? I use the illustration of what happened at one of my churches several years ago. The former pastor had a bad relationship with some neighbors that had not been rectified. When I came as the new pastor and introduced myself, the neighbors brought up the issues with the former pastor. Even though I was not the pastor that had committed the wrongs against that neighbor, as the new pastor who represented the church, I apologized and said that I hope we could have better relationships.

In the same way, I believe American churches today must work to undo the racism exercised by churches in the past. A part of this call goes back to the warnings of the Old Testament prophets against Israel. Particularly in the Minor Prophets, God condemns the Israelites for not standing up against injustice. Many of the issues the Israelites had back then we have now: immigration, unfair business practices, human trafficking, etc. I feel my role as a white, middle class pastor is to humble myself, correct the systemic injustice as I am able, and empower and disciple those around me to carry the message of the Gospel forward.

Many times people object and state that when you empower one group, you then marginalize another. Groups keep competing for the “center” and when one group reaches the center, another group is forced to the margins. That’s not the way it is in the kingdom of God. When we humble ourselves and seek to place others at the center by empowering them to be disciples for Christ, we really place Jesus at the center. When Jesus is correctly in the center, no group is then marginalized!

The church must rise against its own apathy and blindness to the injustices of racism that have long plagued our nation. Until we correct the injustices and racism of the past, we will never be blessed in our future. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the church is failing to evangelize our culture. God cannot bless us when we have not repented of our racist past.

About the Author

Dr. Page Brooks is pastor of Mosaic Church, a multi-racial, multi-campus church in the heart of New Orleans. He is the President of The Restoration Initiative for Culture and Community, a community development ministry of the church. Page also serves Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture at New Orleans where he teaches on the ministry-based faculty.

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